PROVIDENCE, R.I. — It’s that time of year once again: March Madness is in the air. But while a quartet of excited basketball squads gets set to head to Phoenix, the Harvard men’s hockey team turns its focus instead to Chicago for a Final Four of its own—the Frozen Four.
With a 3-2 victory over Air Force in the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional finals, the Crimson (28-5-2, 16-4-2 ECAC) has advanced to its first Frozen Four since 1994. Harvard netted the game’s first three tallies and managed to hang onto the lead it built despite the Falcons’ comeback efforts, punctuated by two strikes 15 seconds apart in the middle frame.
“Air Force kept coming and coming,” Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 said. “We’re happy to move on and very proud of our guys, but I want to give [the Falcons] their due credit because they played great as well.”
The Crimson sees its win streak improve to a program-record 16 consecutive contests after Saturday night’s primetime game at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, and will now wait almost two weeks before its NCAA Tournament semifinal matchup with Minnesota-Duluth, the winner of the bracket’s West Regional.
At the United Center, home of Chicago’s Blackhawks and Bulls, Harvard will enter a four-way battle for college hockey supremacy. With wins on Thursday and Saturday, the Crimson could seize its second Division I crown in program history—the first since 1989, when Donato earned Most Outstanding Player honors at the Frozen Four.
A SPECIAL KNACK FOR SPECIAL TEAMS
Air Force entered Saturday night’s final boasting the nation’s top penalty kill, successfully thwarting the competition’s man-up efforts on over 90 percent of attempts. The Falcons' diamond set-up on the kill has made it difficult for opposing power-play units to score all season.
Largely responsible for Air Force’s man-down success, sophomore netminder Shane Starrett holds down the last line of defense for the Falcons and ranks among the NCAA’s elite puck stoppers. Starrett’s .925 save percentage and 1.99 goals against average—fifth in the NCAA—are clear indicators of his team’s overall success defensively, and this carries over to the penalty kill.
In Providence, Air Force’s stingy shorthanded play was set for a collision course with one of Division I’s premier power plays. The red-hot Crimson owned the fourth-best man-up unit heading into the tilt, finding twine on 26.5 percent of its chances.
In recent games, Harvard’s power play has been as deadly as ever. The Crimson icemen converted 35 percent of their opportunities during the ECAC playoffs and cashed in once against Providence in the East Regional semifinals on Friday night.
“They have a really good penalty kill, but we have a really good power play as well,” co-captain Alexander Kerfoot said. “We have two different units which makes it hard for teams to kill against us…. Power play and penalty kill are huge down the stretch, especially when it comes to one-and-done situations.”
In Saturday’s bout, the Crimson cracked the Falcons’ code on special teams. The sizzling Harvard power play netted what would become the game-winning goal after senior forward Tyler Moy ripped a one-timer nearside on Starrett.
Moy, who pocketed his third goal of the NCAA Tournament with the score, now sets the pace for the Crimson with nine man-up tallies on the season. Also crucial to Harvard’s upper-echelon power play, freshman blue-liner Adam Fox mans the point. The ECAC Rookie of the Year leads his team with 21 assists and 23 points on the man advantage, nabbing a point on over half of his team’s 41 power-play goals to date.
The Crimson power play’s surplus of high-end talent proved overwhelming for the Falcons, who have allowed a league-low 18 man-up goals all season. Thanks to Air Force’s eight shorthanded strikes on the campaign, good for seventh in the nation, the Falcons have only conceded 10 more goals than they have scored while man-down, also best in the country.
As strong as Air Force has been on the penalty kill, which sits at 89.7 percent effective after Saturday’s loss to Harvard, it has struggled of late on the flipside of special teams. The Falcons’ power play ranks a middling 32nd in the country at 18.1 percent and, until Friday night’s East semifinal win over Western Michigan, was scoreless in 14 attempts over a span of four contests.
In its attempt to chip away at the Crimson’s 3-0 stranglehold of Saturday night’s game, Air Force potted both of its goals while skating with an extra man. The first saw the Falcons find twine with six men in the offensive zone, as Starrett waited on the bench for a delayed tripping call to formally start his team’s power play.
In the NCAA—unlike in the National Hockey League—if a team scores on a delayed penalty, the looming power play still ensues. So, Air Force availed itself of a man-up attempt following its first strike, this time burying a genuine power-play goal mere seconds after its tally with the pulled goalie.
MAKING DAD PROUD
Sophomore forward Ryan Donato, son of Crimson bench boss, Ted, found the scoresheet on Saturday night after his stick skills guided him right to Starrett’s doorstep, where he punched the puck across the goal line.
Donato, this year’s Ivy League Player of the Year, registered his 40th point of the season in a pretty display of talent. The Scituate, Mass., product weaved through a pair of royal blue sweaters before finding the back of the net and reclaiming Harvard’s lead in goals, which he now shares with Moy, at 21.
“Donato’s boy is a wonderful player, and [the Crimson skaters] have some skill and some talent,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore ahead of the matchup, just after beating Western Michigan on Friday. “They’re a number one seed. We know that they’re a great team.”
With the triumph over the Falcons (27-10-5, 19-6-3 Atlantic Hockey), Harvard improves to a perfect 13-0-0 when Donato notches a goal and 15-0-0 when the Boston Bruins prospect finishes with a plus rating. Donato’s influence on the Crimson’s overall play is clearly more than statistical coincidence.
Earlier this season, the second-year winger potted four goals in a single night, playing a large role in the Crimson’s 6-2 thrashing of Union on Feb. 10. Donato, the only Harvard skater to accomplish such a feat this decade, has three other four-point performances during the current campaign, all of which included at least two assists. The coach’s son has also chipped in three two-goal games and owns his team’s three highest shot counts of the season with 13 and 10 twice.
Despite Donato’s tendency to rack up multi-point games—he has put forth 11 this season—his play also shines with consistency. As of Saturday night, Donato has inked the score sheet in 20 of 35 games this season.
In addition to sharing the team lead in goals, the second team All-ECAC pick paces his team in shorthanded strikes and shots on goal—a category he dominates by a staggering 57 tries.
—Staff writer Spencer R. Morris can be reached at email@example.com.